The recent AWWA/WEF Joint Utility Management Conference held in Miami, FL, spoke to the importance of developing and supporting the leadership team of public and independent utility agencies. Ed Ruggero, Leadership Academy, was the keynote speaker and provided a very real comparison of leadership in battle during WWII to the leadership capabilities of utility managers in a peacetime setting. His key points were confidence, decisiveness, flexibility, communication and vision. His central theme is that successful leaders communicate a common mission around a shared vision or outcome, plan ahead and prepare for contingencies, are flexible and adjust their strategy based on present and changing conditions, and are committed fully to a decision and learning from what went well and what went wrong. This can be done as a team organized around an individual leader as champion.
Mr. Ruggero’s message was referred to frequently throughout the subsequent conference presentations. Too often in the utility industry, political considerations take precedence over prudent management and visionary leadership. In many instances, councils or their appointees to municipal committees and independent boards are more often unprepared, not grounded with a business perspective,
frequently lack the gumption of risk taking to achieve a desired end, and promise to never exceed their council given mandate. Therefore, expanding awareness of the points that Mr. Ruggero raised, along with options for advanced education such as an online business degree, could have a meaningful impact on utility management practices. Because of that fact, the number of attendees indicating the lack of plans to manage a significant loss of skilled workforce to retirements, awareness of but no steps initiated for succession planning, limited progress on asset management in the small to medium sized utilities, and the pressure to restrain rate expansion to fund these initiatives has led utilities, generally, to be less than prepared for managing the sustainability of this critical public health service. The message was clear to all in attendance throughout the conference sessions:
- Take steps to communicate the importance of adopting comprehensive policies supporting efficient service delivery and administrative systems.
- Evaluate and plan to invest in utility infrastructure by prioritizing decisions and developing a long-term multi-year capital program built upon sound asset management practices.
- Open the conversation with staff to communicate the importance of a common strategic vision for the utility to work in coordination with the broader community’s master and economic development plans.
- Select a strong leader to encourage, communicate, and build credibility with both internal and external stakeholders.
Many utilities are making progress but too many are restrained due to a lack of will by governing bodies. It’s time to build the right leadership model for this industry.